GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Sensing a possible threat, Mitt Romney criticized Rick Santorum's time in the Senate as "not effective" because of his past support for spending on pork-barrel projects as he worked to fend off an unexpected challenge in the next states to vote.
Santorum countered that Romney, the front-runner in the GOP presidential race, "should not be our nominee" because he was "dead wrong on the most important issue of the day" when, as governor, he signed a health care overhaul into law in Massachusetts.
The two sparred from afar one day before Republicans in Colorado and Minnesota hold nominating caucuses, the latest contests in what's become almost a plodding race for the GOP nomination compared to the rapid-fire campaign of last month. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also are competing but neither was expected to have a breakout performance in either state.
Romney, who won both states four years ago, hopes to extend his winning streak though advisers acknowledged that a first-place finish would be more likely to come by in Colorado than in Minnesota. The Republican Party in Minnesota has become more conservative in recent years and Santorum's strong conservative positions on social issues could resonate with the state's strong contingent of evangelical voters.
Santorum, a Catholic, has a strong anti-abortion record and consistently focuses on the issue. Romney, who once supported abortion rights, has struggled to win over those voters. But in a sign that he's trying to do just that, Romney's campaign on Monday rolled out a petition focusing on religious liberty. The move was intended to challenge a recent Obama administration decision to require hospitals to distribute free birth control, a policy at odds with the religious teachings followed at many Catholic health care facilities.
Clearly mindful of the shift in Minnesota, Santorum has been working that state and conservative areas of Colorado aggressively in the past two weeks while Romney campaigned in Florida and Nevada and scored back-to-back victories. It was clear Monday that Santorum saw an opportunity to rise in the GOP race.
In an appearance across the street from the highly regarded Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Santorum assailed Romney with gusto and said that making him the nominee would be "a devastating thing" for Republicans who want to see President Barack Obama lose in the fall.
He also complained that Romney was running an attack machine — and turning it on him, saying: "Any time someone challenges Gov. Romney, Gov. Romney goes out and instead of talking about what he's for ... he just simply goes out and attacks and tries to destroy."
To squelch any rise by Santorum, Romney's campaign spent the second day in a row holding a round of conference calls hosted by surrogates and issuing a spate of news releases accusing Santorum of seeking earmarks when he represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate.
Romney, himself, weighed in during an interview with WCCO radio in Minneapolis, saying of Santorum: "His policies are, in my view, those of many Republicans in Congress who went along with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling, to allowing earmarks and to growing the size of federal government to a level that is frankly choking off the capacity of our economy to grow at the rate it should."
"I think his approach was not effective and, frankly, I happen to believe if we're going to change Washington we can't just keep on sending the same people there in different chairs."
At the same time, allies also worked to lower expectations for a Romney victory in Minnesota. The state is unpredictable given its small, conservative electorate with a strong evangelical Christian component. And even though Romney won in Minnesota four years ago, advisers point out that he ran as the conservative alternative to John McCain, who then was the front-runner and eventually became the nominee in 2008.
"Mitt will be competitive but it's hard to tell who's going to be at the top of the pack," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Romney supporter, said in a conference call with reporters. He said Minnesota GOP caucus-goers "tend to gravitate to the perceived most conservative candidate" and that Romney was "not perfect but conservative."
Romney campaigned in Minnesota a week ago but, in a sign he didn't expect to win, scrapped an appearance at a Minneapolis rally Monday morning in favor of campaigning in Colorado.
Asked if he expects to win in Minnesota, Romney told WCCO radio: "I sure hope so."
As the day began, Romney maintained a front-runner's posture and attacked Obama only at a rally in Grand Junction, Colo.
"No, Mr. President, you do not deserve a second term," Romney told a crowd of a few hundred. That was in response to Obama, who said Sunday during a nationally televised interview: "I deserve a second term, but we're not done."
Still, Romney touched on social issues more than usual, emphasizing the "protection of life" as a core American value during the portion of his usual campaign speech that focuses on America's national hymns.
Romney had scheduled a rally near Denver on Monday night. He was spending caucus day in Colorado.
Gingrich, who also campaigned in Colorado on Monday, attacked Romney's record in Massachusetts and said he "basically accommodated liberal Democrats." He added that Romney isn't a person "who goes in there with a force of will" to change the status quo. Gingrich has little organization in any of the states that vote this week and is instead looking ahead to the spate of Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 6.
Elliott reported from Rochester, Minn. Shannon McCaffrey in Colorado and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., also contributed to this report.